For all her Dresden china delicacy, Lillian Gish booms out chitchat as if her every comma had to be heard in the cheap seats. ''I'm sorry,'' blushes the grande dame of silent film. ''My normal speech is pretty loud, because in my acting lessons they always told me, 'Speak loud and clear or we'll get another little girl.' ''
Miss Gish retains much of that plucky little girl who first took to the stage at age 5, went on to star in D. W. Griffith's 1915 classic ''The Birth of a Nation'' and, 100 films later, appeared in Robert Altman's ''A Wedding.'' Miss Gish is a woman of such elastic talent that she has remained consistently modern over more than a half century in show business. She is a legend in her own lifetime.
On this particular morning she is receiving guests in her white adobe hotel room after the gala tribute given her at the Santa Fe Film Festival. She is decked out with a wide-eyed girlish radiance and the monstrous medallion given her the evening before. She wears flashy white knickers, white stockings, black crepe jazz shoes, and a robin's-egg blue Indian smock embroidered with tiny mirrors.
Behind that sweet innocence and frailty is a woman of oaken convictions and steely wit. After a hearty handshake, she offers me a copy of her autobiography. It has just been translated into Burmese and she teases: ''Go ahead, read a little aloud, why don't you?'' As I contemplate the hieroglyphics on the dust jacket, she sends the conversation galloping off in all directions. Without question Lillian Gish is driving this stagecoach.
For some reason her recent role as a retired schoolteacher on ABC's TV series ''The Love Boat,'' strikes her fancy. ''Doing the part was delightful and the work was easy. For movies in my days, I used to get up at half past four in the morning. I had Mrs. Pickford's (actress Mary Pickford's mother) beach house in Santa Monica, and I would fall out of bed in the dark and into the ocean. I went swimming year-round. Then I'd jump in the car and go to the studio about half-past five, and the maid would make breakfast while I did my hair.''
She continues, without missing a beat, stringing stories together like the pearls in her necklace. ''I never had a hairdresser in my life. I never had a makeup man. Once when I was with George Cukor he said, 'I want the makeup man to get you ready for this short thing.' So I went to the makeup man. When I came down George looked at me and said 'What? You don't look like yourself. What did they do to you?' Well, of course I didn't look like myself. The makeup man put a face on me that he puts on everybody: take out the eyebrows, a little blue or purple over your eyelids - I've never seen anything but birds with that coloring on their eyes. I was made up to look like anybody else, so I couldn't look like myself. He said, 'You go up and take that off and put your own makeup back.' And then I just came back as God made me.''
If Lillian Gish is a national living treasure, as many would argue, she is one seemingly without pretense. ''I think I know what makes her so magnificent, '' says Brooks Atkinson in the introduction to her autobiography, ''The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me.'' ''She has no vanity. She is not concerned with defining, exploiting, or defending her reputation. She does not try to be smart or clever. In a play she is not concerned with what it does for her career; she is concerned with the group performance. . . . Although Miss Lillian is not much interested in herself, she is very much interested in other people and in what they do and think. That is why she has never been bored or immobilized. She began as a trouper; she is a trouper now.''
Director-producer Peter Glenville joins the applause for Miss Gish, who he says melds a romanticism with an astringent sense of the practical. ''Professionally, she minds her own business, and film and theater gossip leave her cold.''
One of two daughters in a broken family, Lillian Gish began her acting career at age 5. She opened in Rising Sun, a village in pastoral northern Ohio. The melodrama was ''In Convict's Stripes''; she was billed as ''Baby Lillian'' and earned $10 a week. Eventually she, her younger sister, Dorothy, and their mother , Mary, teamed up and were hired to tour together for a combined salary of $35. ''We were put out early to travel, lots of one-night stands, melodramas that went on for 30 weeks,'' said Miss Gish. The family spent much of their lives on trains, reading the Bible together between tiny Midwest towns and staying in 50 -cent-a-night hotels. She recalls sleeping on waiting-room benches in train depots, covered by the overcoats of men in the cast. Stagehands read the girls stories from their favorite books.
They subsisted ''mostly on oatmeal and milk for 5 cents a serving . . . two portions made my dinner. Whenever possible we snuck into church suppers and stuffed ourselves for 25 cents. When Dorothy and I were together we used to have what we'd call 'mashed potatoes.' We'd get 5 cents worth of vanilla ice cream, 5 cents worth of chocolate, and beat it up and have it for lunch. We weren't allowed to play with children if they knew we were actresses, and there would be signs up in the hotels: 'No dogs or actors allowed.' We asked mother why that was and she said, 'Sometimes when actors are on the road they have no money and have to slip out the back window without paying their bills.' ''
Miss Gish now lives in her mother's old New York apartment and recalls fondly the tightly knit family the ''three girls'' made. ''There has never been another human being that I knew as well as my mother. I respected the example she set for us. She never smoked, never drank. When I'd wake up in the middle of the night, her light would be on, and she would be sewing, making something for us. Until we were grown up she made everything we wore except our shoes and stockings. Hats, coats, underwear, everything. We would go hungry maybe, but we'd have real lace on our panties. . . .''
''Of the three of us, I always thought Dorothy had the greatest talent,'' said Lillian of her sister. ''She was witty and amusing, and that's rare in a beautiful woman. She had wide-ranging talent, which she never used. I directed my only film (''Remodeling Her Husband'') with her in 1920 because I thought maybe I could bring it out if other people seemed not to. It was a success.''
By the time the girls were 12 and 13 they began thinking about Hollywood and the movies. They saw the instant success of their friend Mary Pickford, who had already made 10 films, was making $275 a week, and had her own Model T. So the family packed their bags and struck out for California. Soon they began what was to become a legendary collaboration with the father of film, David Wark Griffith.
Lillian arrived at D. W. Griffith's studio in 1913 and they worked together for the next nine years. ''Mr. Griffith started in 1908,'' she recalled, ''and by the time I got to Hollywood he had already discovered the form and grammar of telling a story on celluloid. First he made a two-reel picture with me, which they complained was too long. Then he made a four-reel film and they said, 'No, you just can't do this. People can't sit through something that long. It hurts your eyes.' ''
In 1915 Griffith released ''The Birth of a Nation.'' Called the most important film ever made, it was also the first long film ever made in America with 12 reels of what his critics called ''galloping tintypes.'' He put it into a theater with a full orchestra and charged theater prices. It went into towns and cities where it played to three times the population. Criticized then and now for its blatant racism, the film was nevertheless a tremendous commercial success, earning nearly $50 million during Griffith's lifetime. Allowing for inflation, it is considered the biggest moneymaker of all time. ''It's still a dangerous film to run,'' said Miss Gish. ''They ran it in San Francisco a year ago June, and they destroyed the theater, $15,000 in damages.
''Film is a power. Silent film. And yet there's never been such a thing as silent film. You always have music with it. We used to make fun of film and call them 'flickers.' Griffith heard this one day and said, 'Don't you dare ever let me hear you use that word in this studio. Don't you know this was predicted in the Bible? This is the universal language. This can bring all men together and end wars and bring about the millennium. You just think about that the next time you face the camera!' Well, we were all in our mid-teens and took it seriously from that time on.''
Miss Gish, a frequent Victorian heroine in Griffith's epic films, maintains the master went for realism, and the cast gave him what he wanted. One of her most physically grueling roles came in ''Way Down East.'' ''We spent three weeks at White River Junction, Vt., where two rivers, the White and the Connecticut, converge. Griffith wanted to get the ice going out in the daytime. We had no electricity in those days. If we went outside, we had to depend upon the sun and good weather. We were there from sunup to sundown on those chunks of ice. I didn't have sense enough to put a newspaper under me, much less have a heavy piece of wool to protect me. There were no doubles in those days. No doubles of any kind. We thought if it wasn't you, people would know it. I still think we were right, because nowadays you see cars going over cliffs, and people falling out of planes, and you know that's not happening to real people.''
Her indefatigability is renowned in the business. Peter Glenville recalled: ''In Dahomey, where we were filming 'The Comedians,' I remember a day on which Lillian had a particularly difficult scene to play. The temperature was 130 degrees, and there was no shade - not a tree, not a house, not a cafe in which to take occasional refuge. Among the things that Lillian had to endure was being pushed in the face and thrown to the ground, covered with sharp pebbles. . . .
''Richard Burton, who was also in the scene, finally approached me and courteously suggested that the heat and excessive physical work might be too much for a lady of Lillian's delicacy and that perhaps we should stop work for the day. Naturally, I put the suggestion to Lillian. 'Nonsense,' she replied. 'We are here to work, and we haven't completed the scene. Anyway, you need the sun - and it will be just as hot tomorrow. I prefer to work until sundown.' And that is exactly what she did.''
Where does Miss Gish get all her pizazz?
''I don't see how anybody gets through 24 hours without a belief beyond man, do you?,'' she said, raising her eyebrows and waving a handkerchief. ''What's my source of inspiration? Lots of things I don't know. The older I get, the more I believe in what I can't explain or understand, even more than the things that are explainable and understandable. Some people say we're lucky. I don't believe it's luck. It's something out here that I don't really know about. I mean, the very fact that there's this stuff called air in the room, you can't see it or feel it, but we live off it. It's amazing.''
Mary Gish, Lillian's mother, was a devoutly religious woman, and Lillian still keeps by her bedside her mother's Bible, heavily underlined with favorite passages. ''We were born Episcopalian but Grandmother Gish was Lutheran, Pennsylvania Dutch,'' she said. ''In the early days when I toured alone, mother told me when I was in a town on a Sunday I should go to my church. She said if you can't find your church, you go to any church. Any church is better than no church.''
When it comes down to stating a preference for silent films or the ''talkies'' or her work on stage, Miss Gish balks. ''I like to go from one to the other, because each is a different instrument you play. It's like an orchestra: You play violin, you play the drums, you play the clarinet. Each one's different, but it's all music.
''Most of all, though, I love a live audience. I especially like to lecture and have lectured at 367 colleges in America. I lectured as a guest in France, 10 days in Russia, 15 days in Scotland and England. For some reason I seem to connect with young people more than older people.''
When it comes to pinpointing a favorite role, she doesn't hestitate. ''It was the privilege of playing in 'Hamlet' with America's and England's finest actor, John Gielgud (in 1936). It was my first time playing Shakespeare. I remember the company was part British, part American, part Australian, and the director said, 'I want no accent of any kind in this production. I want pure unadulterated English.'
''John Gielgud had done 'Hamlet' three times - directed it once, played it twice. In our 'Hamlet,' he didn't play Hamlet, he was Hamlet. And no other man in my lifetime could I say that about. For the six months we did 'Hamlet' even all the stagehands stood, captivated, in the entrances watching every performance. I think he is the greatest classical actor we have.''
She continued, ''Acting is something nobody can teach you. That, you have to learn from the human race. You can, however, teach yourself control of your body. I played tennis, swam, danced. I studied fencing with Aldo Nadi, who said if I'd give him two years he could get me ready for the Olympics because I had such accurate eyesight. Still have. I wear no glasses.
''If you've read the book called 'Inside Dance' for ballet dancers, that's what you need for film acting. Your body has to tell the story, together with your face. I felt always that I was a painter, and instead of painting on canvas with a brush and oil or watercolors, I painted with this body and face of mine. You have to tell your story and you mustn't get caught acting.''
Her talents were broad enough to have made a living most anywhere in show business, and she says now that had she been denied an acting career, she would have chosen music. ''I'd love to be in music. I'd be a musicologist, I suppose. I only went to school for seven months, that was in St. Louis, for $25 a month. It included room and board, studies, and piano lessons. I loved the piano. I love going to Austria, that's Mozart country. Anywhere in Europe you're never far from the sound of music. In Bucharest, Hungary, that's Gypsy music. I don't care for noisy jazz but sure like the music of Africa, the drum beat.
''I once saw Lena Horne.'' The mischievous twinkle returns to her eyes. ''The house was packed. Every box seat taken, and she's up there alone for two hours. I was in the third row and could see the water dripping off her. You wonder how can she do this eight times a week. I was asked to go backstage and meet her, and I was naturally honored. We waited for her to have a shower. And then she came out all clean, just a robe around her. I hugged and kissed her. And she hadn't fussed with that wonderful face. No makeup. Just as God made her.''